Introduction

Since 1948, the El Mocambo's giant 26-foot neon palm tree has been a symbol for great live music in Toronto. 

Few music venues have had quite as kaleidoscopic a history as this club, known affectionately throughout Toronto as the “El Mo.” 

A black and white image showing a Toronto city block. On the right is a building featuring a neon sign in the shape of a palm tree that reads “El Mocambo Tavern”. Below reads “Fine Cuisine”

The El Mocambo’s iconic neon palm tree has beckoned guests to its Spadina Avenue location since the 1940s.

Courtesy of the City of Toronto Archives

Early El Mo

The Early "El Mo"

The El Mocambo Tavern opened in March 1948 on Spadina Avenue, offering music and “night-time gaiety.” Decorated in leatherette and chrome, the restaurant at the base of the neon palm tree sign offered an escape for young Torontonians looking for a night out of food, music, and even alcohol. 

Although the El Mocambo’s newspaper ads proclaimed it “Toronto’s Most Famous Night Spot”, the El Mocambo’s profile was low through the 1950s and 1960s. Irish and Scottish musicians regularly performed on the restaurant’s stage as well as a low-key dance band. 

A black and white newspaper ad advertises live music at the El Mocambo tavern.

An ad for the El Mocambo Tavern from spring 1949 advertises live music in the form of strolling mariachis, in keeping with the restaurant’s Latin theme. The offer of wandering musicians in a restaurant was slightly scandalous for 1940s Toronto, a time of strict entertainment and alcohol laws.

The Toronto Star, April 1949

Bring On the Rock and Roll

Bring On the Rock and Roll

Thirty years after it opened, things changed dramatically for the El Mocambo in 1972. New owners and a new booker brought new sounds. The low-ceilinged second floor soon reverberated with loud rock and roll, blues, and jazz, packing in crowds even on weeknights. The 350-seat club booked classic rock-and-rollers like Chubby Checkers and Bo Diddley. You could also listen to the blues at the El Mo: artists, like a young Tom Waits, made regular appearances.

Despite the legendary quality of artists performing at the venue, many local critics still saw the El Mo as a bar more than a place for great music. 

El Mocambo’s beer drinkers aren’t interested in sensitive lyrics and subtleties of language. They want, generally speaking, good time music.

—Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail, April 1975
AprilWine

April Wine & The Rolling Stones

A chance encounter with fate in the 1970s launched the El Mocambo to legendary status among Toronto venues. In 1977, British rock band the Rolling Stones were interested in recording a new live album. Although the band was no stranger to performing in front of hundreds of thousands, the Stones wanted their next live album to be a smaller, more intimate experience. Lead singer Mick Jagger and band manager Peter Rudge chose the small, smoky El Mocambo to record a Stones’ live album over two consecutive nights, March 4 and 5, 1977.

To prevent thousands turning up to see the legendary band perform, the band and manager came up with a ruse to limit the audience to a few hundred. A contest organized by Toronto’s local CHUM-FM radio asked fans to write in about what they would do to see the Rolling Stones live. The contest’s prize was to see Canadian rock band April Wine at the El Mocambo and an unknown group called the Cockroaches (the Rolling Stones in disguise).

An illustration of four men playing instruments in front of a tropical background with palm trees and a large moon.

Canadian rock band April Wine opened for the Rolling Stones at the El Mocambo in March 1977. Both bands recorded live albums during the concert: the Rolling Stones' "Love You Live" and April Wine's "Live at the El Mocambo".

Album Cover, April Wine, "Live at the El Mocambo", 1977

A Gig To Remember

A Gig To Remember

Without makeup, props, or special effects, the surprise appearance by the Rolling Stones had the audience screaming from atop tables and chairs. Apart from the internationally renowned band on stage, there were a few notable faces in the audience as well.

The 28-year-old Margaret Trudeau, wife of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, attended both performances at the El Mocambo. After she arrived with Mick Jagger and guitarist Ron Wood on both nights and partied at their hotel suite, tabloid rumors flew. 

Mr. Richards and the other instrumentalists benefited mightily from the club acoustics...Rhythmic precision and sonic impact are inevitably blurred in large halls. Here the attacks were clean, hard and sharp. The great Stones songs came across tighter and tougher than ever before.

—John Rockwell, The New York Times, March 7, 1977
Love You Live
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This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

Listen: Love You Live

The performance the Rolling Stones recorded at the El Mocambo in March 1977 was released in September 1977 as a double album titled Love You Live.

The album artwork, featuring a stylized drawing of singer Mick Jagger, was drawn by pop art superstar Andy Warhol. The album reached the Number 3 spot on Canada’s music charts.

The El Mo Makes It Big
 A black and white photo of a woman tossing her hair.

Renowned music photographer Patrick Harbron captured this iconic moment of Deborah Harry from Blondie, tossing her hair while performing their Parrallel Lines pre-tour at the El Mocambo on August 3, 1978.

Photo by Patrick Habron

The El Mo Makes It Big

With the fame came bigger names to play at the El Mo. In 1978, one year after the Stones’ concert, the El Mo booked Elvis Costello, rock band Blondie, and new wave band Devo.

The performance by Blondie drew a terrible review from The Globe and Mail, which described lead singer Debbie Harry flatly as “not born to rock ‘n’ roll.” 

In December 1980, a very young and unknown U2 played their first North American show at the El Mocambo. Even politician Bob Rae, leader of Ontario’s NDP (and future premier), played an El Mocambo set as part of a pro-peace project.

A Bootleg Album

A Bootleg Album

This album was once criminal! When Elvis Costello played the El Mocambo in March 1978, Toronto station CHUM-FM was on hand to record and broadcast the performance over the radio. Although the recording was eventually released as a promotional album by CBS records, many Toronto music fans recorded the broadcast directly from their own radios, creating an illegal copy.

Costello’s El Mo performance soon became famous for inspiring so many pirate copies, often considered to be one of the most "bootlegged" records of the 1970s. 

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This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

An El Mo for the 90s

An El Mo for the 90s

Sadly, the El Mo’s high-profile glory days were short. The building was sold in 1986, followed by over a decade of owner turnover and renovations. In the 1990s, the venue again gained a reputation for great live music, this time focusing on booking punk and alternative groups, like the Rheostatics, Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, and the Barenaked Ladies.

The El Mocambo’s wider popularity rose again in 1998, when new owners hired Dan Burke as booker for the venue. He used the venue’s small size as a platform for up and coming musicians of all genres, from rock to punk to roots to hip-hop. Crowds came back in droves, quickly earning an unofficial “most improved venue of the year” award from the Toronto Star.

The El Mo will always be the greatest rock ‘n’ roll landmark in this city...It had just the right amount of seediness and rock ‘n’ roll-ness that appealed to both the pretty, rich kids who were out to rebel against their parents and the downtown working kids/art students who spent all their cash from their minimum-wage jobs on Saturday nights.

-DJ Davy Lowe, host of a weekly British pop-themed set at the El Mocambo during the late 1990s

Vazaleen Nights

Vazaleen Nights

The El Mo threw open its doors to everyone, creating a welcome space for all. During the late 1990s, the venue regularly hosted Vazaleen, a popular monthly queer rock party.

Created by Toronto artist and activist Will Munro, Vazaleen was held at both the El Mo and nearby Lee’s Palace on Bloor Street. The event attracted a diverse queer crowd, who enjoyed guest performances and danced to punk and heavy metal.

Find Out More
A hand-drawn flyer advertising a rock n roll queer bar at the El Mocambo. The text is bordered in chains and at the center, there is an illustration of a man in a motorcycle cap and moustache.

A poster advertising the first Vaseline (later changed to Vazaleen) rock party held at the El Mocambo.

Courtesy of the Art Gallery of York University and Paul Petro Contemporary Art

Losing a Legend

Losing A Legend?

Another sale of the venue in 2001 seemed to herald the end of the El Mocambo. The new owner, Abbas Jahangari, planned to turn the building into a dance studio and charity centre. Former employees, artists, and even city councillors protested Jahangari’s plans.

[I]t’d be an immense shame to lose the El Mocambo. It might be a ‘hole’, but its closing will leave a much bigger one.

—Ben Rayner, Toronto Star, October 6, 2001

Jahangari professed he did not know of the venue’s venerable reputation when he had bought it. Altering his original plans for the space, Jahangari renovated and reopened the crowd floor of the El Mo for music events. While many were not thrilled by the changes, the addition of DJ nights and dance parties kept audiences steady throughout the early 2000s.

Listen: Booking the El Mo

Listen: Booking the El Mo

Yvonne Matsell was the primary talent booker for the El Mocambo during the early 2000s. Matsell had a big job in front of her to convince both musicians and music lovers to come back to the El Mo after its sale to Abbas Jahangari in 2001.

Listen to how she worked to bring big bands to and develop new talents at the El Mo, cementing the venue as a great place for live music.

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This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

Recorded for Heritage Toronto, 2019.

View Transcript

Yvonne Matsell: Hi, my name is Yvonne Matsell and I've been a booker of numerous clubs in Toronto. And I’ve had a history with many Canadian acts.

I became the booker of choice in Toronto. So if one club ended up closing, not from my issues it's hard to keep club in business and sometimes, you know, the owners don't have the financial backing to do that, but it was something that might happen.

They couldn't pay their rent. Things changed and I’d be moving on to another club. And that was generally how I helped build up clubs and make them the place to go. And that had happened a few times.

The last club before the El Mo was Ted’s Wrecking Yard. But anyway, the El Mo was under construction. The owner that had it at the time, the new owner was trying to develop a dance club upstairs, meaning learning modern dance, not a club dance situation.

But he realized because there was uproar over the closing of the El Mo that he had to keep music happening there. So Ted had introduced him to me and he said, you know, he'd like to work with me. And that was that career.

I was there for 11 years, but it was an interesting time there.

Musicians can have loyalty to people, and they didn't have loyalty to that owner at that time. So they were actually unhappy that he’d originally bought it and was turning it into a dance club.

So based on that, you know, I had two schools of musicians: I'm never playing there again or oh yeah, I need to play there. It’s the El Mocambo.

So when I started off, it was it was a bit of a long haul to try and get it back on its feet again because it had been closed for awhile.

And I did. [laughs] Yeah. It was just perseverance and it was a huge room to fill. But because I have great connections with people, I have great connections with promoters, record labels.

Just people who would want to help get the club back up and running.

And they were willing to work with me and help bring bands in that were touring bands. So I did a lot of really cool stuff there, including the Kaiser Chiefs from the UK. Which is now probably a stadium band over there, but we had their first show for 30 people.

We had Amy Millan from Stars came and did an acoustic set with Emily Haines. Queens of the Stone Age came in and did a stadium-style show in that room because they played the ACC and then they decided to do that club. So based on my connections with people, I was able to get a lot of cool stuff happening, and then I would continue trying to build bands as well.

An Uncertain Future
 A group of four young people stand in front of a music venue. Behind them the neon sign for the venue features a palm tree and the words "El Mocambo".  A color photo showing a restored neon palm tree sign reading the words “El Mocambo”. Underneath the buildings are shuttered.

Click here to travel through time

The El Mo has changed dramatically over the years, seen here in 1982 and in 2019. Its neon palm-tree sign has become an icon for great live music in Toronto.

Photo by Peter Goddard, courtesy of Toronto Star Photo Archives.

Photo by Vik Pahwa

An Uncertain Future

In 2012, Abbas Jahangari sold the El Mocambo to Sam Grosso, owner of the popular Cadillac Lounge, another live-music venue, on Queen Street West. 

The building was for sale again by 2014, this time purchased by Canadian millionaire Michael Wekerle for 3.8 million dollars. Years of restoration followed. A painstakingly created replica of the classic palm tree neon sign was returned to the building and re-lit in November 2018. Although 2020 was initially anticipated as the year the iconic El Mocambo would finally re-open, the global outbreak of the coronavirus changed those plans. The venue began to stream its first online concerts in September 2020.  

Toronto without the El Mocambo? It just doesn’t exist.

—Michael Wekerle
Inside the New El Mo

Watch: A Sneak Peek at the New El Mo

Watch a sneak peek of the renovated El Mocambo led by owner Michael Wekerle, filmed by CBC just a few weeks before Toronto shut down due to the global coronavirus outbreak in March 2020. Wekerle had planned to hold the grand re-opening of the El Mo in April 2020.

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This online exhibition uses third-party applications including Spotify and YouTube. Check with your organization’s web administrator if you are unable to access content from these channels in the exhibition.

Courtesy of CBC, March 5 2020. Please note: this third-party video does not provide closed captions.

View Transcript

Unknown voice: That actually worked.

[Music]

Greg Ross: So here it is. The newly refurbished El Mocambo. Michael Wekerle, the owner. Six years of your blood, sweat, and tears to get this place open. And we look around here, what do you think? Are you happy with your work?

Michael Wekerle: You know, for six years, I’ve been coming here and I was kind of like, oh man, not this problem, not this problem. So there were always issues. As I came down about two or three months ago, I go, there, it’s coming. And now I’m excited.

Ross: You got the main stage here on the second floor. How long is it going to take to get Michael Wekerle up there with some big name band?

Wekerle: You know, as I tell people, you know, I always will play the El Mocambo. I played a few venues in Toronto when I was a kid and I looked the part but I was terrible. And they never would let me play here. So I finally played the El Mocambo, I decided to buy it first.

Ross: You’ve done something pretty unique here. You’ve got this main stage here but then you got another stage downstairs. You could have two shows going simultaneously at the same time.

Wekerle: Yeah, someone’s playing downstairs, I’ve got Joan Baez playing up here. They’re totally isolated, totally soundproof. And it’s really unique because that was the thesis here. Is that we could have people interacting. We’ve got an elevator that goes up and down. With all the acoustics, it’s really simple for a band to come in here, plug in and do what they want to do. U2 played their first show here in 1980 in North America. They got paid- I’ve got the score sheet- they got paid $500.

Ross: So this is a pretty good view up here.

Wekerle: It’s the best view. I don’t think there’s a place in North America that has the intimacy of a stage. We extend this stage by four feet so everywhere in this whole second floor has a perfect view of the stage and I think it’s really unique. These are the seats that I think are going to be the crème de la crème and you know when you come here and you look at any venue you’ve ever gone to, you know, if you want to be front stage at any event, you always have people around you. This is one of the few events that you’re actually sitting here and in kind of an opera setting, you know? And I think that the key thing here is that you’re able to have that intimacy with the artist.

This is your audio/visual. Audio and this is your visual. And one of the cool things here because we have robotic cameras and you have editing. So I can do editing whether I want to do a stream, whether I want to do a kind of quick post of something on YouTube. Or I want to do a full production environment.

Ross: You originally wanted this sign outside.

Wekerle: I did. And it was terrible. It was in such disrepair. I mean, look at this thing. They had to repair this thing and we had to re-fuse it, but it was so, what I would say, anti-economic, you know? It was so much electricity, it would burn out and everything. So we butterflied it and we lit it up as a stage show. I do believe at the end of the day, it is Toronto’s bar. It’s not my bar, it’s Toronto’s bar. And everyone who participated in making this happen is part of the April opening. And that’s what April’s going to be. It’s going to be Canadiana month and that’s a little insight I’ll give you

[Music]

Dive Deeper

Dive Deeper

Official Web Site for the El Mocambo

Johnny Dovercort, Any Night of the Week: A D.I.Y. History of Toronto Music, 1957-2001. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2020.